The Chicago Teachers Union announced it will go on strike Oct. 11 if negotiations with Chicago Public Schools do not result in a contract acceptable to its members.
The union’s representative body, the House of Delegates, officially gave its 10-day notice at a special meeting Wednesday evening. The notice is the last step before a walkout in a process set by a 2011 state law.
That does not mean a strike will take place. Negotiators are likely to be at the table until the last moment.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the mood was somber inside the union hall as delegates met.
“We are ready for this to be resolved,” she said.
The union has not had a contract since June 31, 2015.
Michelle Gunderson, a first grade teacher at Nettelhorst Elementary in Lakeview and a member of the union’s bargaining team, said the lack of a contract led some teachers to leave the district.
“What I’m finding in my school is that we’re losing our best teachers,” Gunderson said after the strike date was set. “Some of the teachers we’ve lost are people who had gone and gotten other degrees and now for the second year are not being compensated for those degrees. We lost a fabulous music teacher to the suburbs. We lost our best science and math teacher to Minnesota.”
The union said recent negotiations have been productive, but that it’s time to move things along.
Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the district “will work tirelessly at the bargaining table” to avoid a strike.
“What we can all agree on is that teachers deserve a raise, which is why we offered a contract with a healthy raise that was approved by an independent arbitrator,” she said, referring to a deal reached in January that the union’s bargaining team ultimately rejected.
One of the biggest sticking points for the union is that the offer Chicago Public Schools has made could result in some teachers getting less pay at the end of the contract compared to the beginning.
The teachers union presented a clear path for Mayor Rahm Emanuel that could avert a strike: Release more Tax Increment Finance funds to Chicago Public Schools. TIFs are special taxing districts that are used for economic development.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the TIF fund a “slush fund for the mayor that supports wealthy developers.” The union has argued that some of that money could be used for teacher salaries and also to restore some positions closed due to budget cuts.
All taxing districts get windfalls when the city declares a surplus on what’s been collected in TIFs. This year, CPS is slated to get $34 million in TIF money --$50 million less than last year.
The main disagreement is over what should be counted as surplus and when TIF money is considered committed.
The timing of the strike might also be related to the TIF funds.
The Oct. 11 date is one day before the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee meeting and on the Finance Committee agenda is an ordinance that would require all TIF surplus to go to the Chicago schools.
The CTU might be hoping a strike would push aldermen to move the ordinance forward, should the mayor fail to release more money.
At the CPS board of education meeting earlier Wednesday, board President Frank Clark sounded hopeful a strike could be averted.
“I frankly expect that we will figure a way out to address the issues that are important to you and your members to keep the teachers where they want to be… in front of the kids,” he said.
“Exactly,” Lewis responded. “And remember, it is still focused on what is best for the classroom and we have got to be in there.”
But it is unclear how much CPS and Emanuel are willing to change their positions. Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool insist the CPS offer to the union is a good one. Under it, Claypool repeated Wednesday, teachers will get a “healthy” raise.
The union has said that CPS has not made an official new offer since January, though the two sides have been in talks over specific issues.
That January offer would give teachers an 8.75 percent raise over four years, but teachers would pay 7 percent more into their pension fund and between 1.5 percent and 3 percent more for health insurance. Teachers would also get salary increases based on experience and education, called steps and lanes.
Considering the increase into the pension fund and payments to health insurance, steps and lanes would be the mechanism by which most teachers would see an increase in compensation.
But the teachers union says it doesn’t consider steps and lanes raises, and leaders insist other school districts don't count them as raises.
But CPS said steps and lanes count. CPS leaders said an average teacher would get a 5 percent raise through steps and lanes.
Either way, at year 14, steps are spaced out and then, once a teacher has 21 years experience, they stop getting step increases.
Both sides said as many as one-third of teachers -- between 5,000 and 8,000 teachers out of 22,000 -- will not get steps and lane increases at all. CPS has publicly put out there they could fix the problem with as little $8 million.
With the announcement of budget cuts because of enrollment drops this week, the teachers union also seems to be honing in on non-compensation issues, including enforceable class size limits. Currently, the teachers contract only has guidelines for class sizes and provides some money to correct egregious situations.
Per state law, the Chicago Teachers Union cannot bargain over classroom sizes or many other non-compensation issues.